‘I start in a whiskey cask and end in a whisky cask but I am not whisky, what am I?’
Rum, of course - specifically a new release of ‘single cask’ rums from Plantation. Now before you click away thinking this isn’t about whisky, please understand that the editor made me promise this isn’t going to be an article just about rum (he knows my love of the sweet juice). No, the only way I could twist his arm was to mention that Plantation have worked with those bastions of authenticity, Kilchoman, as well as Arran and Teeling distilleries, on a barrel-swap programme that’s bearing its first fruits.
For those unaware, Plantation Rum is the passion project of Alexandre Gabriel, the man who turned the dormant Maison Ferrand into a global cognac business. This business student turned distiller has a love of both rum and whisky, and a deeply poetic fascination with wood and the aging process. Plantation don’t distill rum, they choose very specific casks whose liquid is the “distinct expression of its Caribbean country of origin”, and import them to Cognac. Here they are nurtured in a way only the French could, with tasting and the regular moving of casks to different parts of the cellars to encourage just the right maturation. At Ferrand the rums are always disgorged into cognac barrels for maturation but in the case of the three I am tasting, they also spent time in specifically matched whisky casks, chosen by Alexandre, in partnership with each distillery.
So, why Kilchoman? Alexandre’s answer is uncharacteristically brief, “The liquid was delicious, these are crazy guys on a mission.” I sat down with him and also Kilchoman’s founder Anthony Wills to learn more. Trinidad 1997 ‘Kilchoman’ finish (45.2%)
This rum spends 15 and a half years in ex-Bourbon and six months in Ferrand cognac casks before it’s finished in a Kilchoman cask for just four months, due to the heavy peat of the outgoing spirit (a robust 50ppm). As Alexandre says, “Working with a super peated barrel you have to be careful - it’s like when you don’t want your tea to be too strong, if you don’t do it too well you might as well throw away the barrel.”
“Peating is usually the elephant in the room for a cognac guy. I was usually downplaying it,” admitted Alexandre. This time however he decided to do it differently, rather than choose a heavy rum that would balance the peat or fight it, he chose the lighter Trinidad rum that would put the peatiness front and centre.
Alexandre explained that at Trinidad they have a column still not a pot but for extra flavour they reintroduce elements from the lower plates, which introduce dark chocolate notes.
This rum is challenging me. On the nose, it’s incredibly muted, especially compared to the other two I’ll talk about. If you really get your nose in then there’s a hint of phenol, a memory of chemistry classes long ago, but so far back. Now I think about it, like a recently emptied espresso cup, a hint of something. But tasting it … this is unreal. I have never tasted anything quite like it. I’m smiling and laughing. I anticipated some kind of peaty monster with a bag of sugar but it's actually the most sublime salted dark chocolate - the really fine stuff that’s passed around at the kind of dinner parties I’ve never been invited too. It has a rarified air to it, and with that, it’s also not something I could drink a ton of in a night. That’s probably a compliment to the balance, the dryness and bitterness with a final, lingering sweetness that is as far from any sugar bomb rum I’ve tried.
I’m excited for the ‘return leg’ of this barrel-swap, with Anthony telling me that Kilchoman have laid down some experiments using Plantation barrels. “We’re excited to be working with Alexandre because we’ll have the provenance of the cask and we can talk about where these have come from. The consumers thirst for knowledge is getting greater and they want to know.” He’s a little coy but confirms they will release something when they think it’s just right.
I also tasted … Jamaica 1999 ‘Arran’ finish (46.7%)
With rum from the Clarendon distillery aged for 18 years in ex-Bourbon casks, two years in Ferrand casks and finally spending a year finishing in the Arran cask, it’s so funky on the nose you could cut it with a knife. Warming silage, grassy at one end and car paint and Turkish delight at the other - no real Arran hints yet. Then, oh my god, on the palate it’s ALL the tropical fruits of a beautiful Arran - one sip and you can taste the rainbow. Hold me back while I dive into this again and again. The fruitiness would be too much were it not for a beautiful woodiness right at the back that anchors it all in place, never letting it disappear into dessert territory completely. Panama 27 Years Old ‘Teeling’ finish (51.1%)
This rum, from the Alcoholes del Istmo distillery, is aged 25 years in ex-Bourbon casks, one and a half years in Ferrand casks and finished for six months in a cask that formerly held Teeling single malt Irish whisky. It’s the third year Plantation have done a Teeling finish release.
The nose will be familiar to any Teeling fan, but with more autumnal elements, of toffee apples and spice, more burn sugar than the saccharine sweetness I’d feared. This continues on the palate, developing into chocolate orange and crushed allspice, the joyous pepperiness of a powerful hit of alcohol that’s as balanced as it is warming. I keep coming back just to sniff the nearly empty glass. This is not simply a rum with a Teeling wrapper, it’s two things merged into something new. Behind every bottle ...
I have the pleasure of meeting many passionate people in the distilling business but Alexandre is a treat. Perhaps it’s his charming manner, his deep technical knowledge of the distilling and aging process, or simply his engaging turn of phrase, “Behind every bottle of great spirits is someone with a dream” - it could only be said in a charismatic French accent and not sound cheesy. If I can’t lure you to become a run fan, at least approach these releases with an open mind, as they are nurtured by a true spirits fan, one of us you might say. You can tell that by the distilleries he chose to work with. Where to buy
Around 144 bottles of each are available. The Panama and Trinidad releases are available from Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange in the UK, but the Jamaica is not gracing our shores … though personally, I’d hunt it down however you can.
A spirited relationship